Happily, my condo complex was a virtual ghost town when I finally got there around noon. I was upstairs and through my own front door in minutes, with no one the wiser. Unfortunately, the sense of relief and safety I’d been anticipating did not materialize.
Just inside the door, I stopped and gazed around at the familiar confines of my home, suddenly understanding that ‘I’ did not live here—or anywhere—anymore.
‘I’ was gone. Forever.
Left, at last, with no further urgent distractions, the existential enormity of my condition finally solidified.
I remember wandering through the living room, urging myself to ‘buck up and be practical’… then standing in the bedroom—not my bedroom anymore, just the bedroom—gazing, like the proverbial bird before the snake, at the mirrored doors of the closet full of the clothes ‘I’ would never wear again. The boy I saw there was everything I’d wished to be the previous night: his whole life still ahead of him, knowing everything I’d learned in fifty failed years—free to rule the world by twenty-five. But all I felt now was burgeoning terror.
The world I’d imagined ruling was the one I’d understood. Where had that world gone to? …Could it ever be retrieved?
I knew the answer, somehow, in the visceral fabric of my impossible new body.
As the deepest, life-long underpinnings of my native cosmos finally dominoed out from under me, the throng of untenable questions and objections I had been dodging all day tumbled out to murmur, babble, shout and roar inside my head. I fell onto the bed, suspended between my inability to cope and my inability to escape. I was still there as twilight descended—waiting—for what, I am not sure even now.
The period after that is a near blank for me; ambiguous flashes in murky water full of vaguely glimpsed nightmares. I still don’t know how long I laid there. Hours? …Days?
The first thing I remember beyond that fog is the ringing of a phone. I made no move to answer it. None of those calls could possibly have been for me. Not the me I had become. The man they were calling would never answer that phone again. But it began to ring more and more frequently, and the sound kept jarring me from the fugue I was lost in until, eventually, I got up—to find food, I suppose, or the bathroom.
After that, I just wandered through the house—unable to imagine any conceivable future. Unable to go back to anything I’d ever been. How had I ever imagined that being young again would be…empowering? This…
This was more profoundly immobilizing than I could encompass—even now.
When I grew too restless to lie down or sit, I stood, and wandered from room to room, too afraid of being spotted if I stepped outside—of what being discovered by the world in which I no longer had any place might precipitate. Such thoughts only troubled me when I thought at all—which was very seldom. The slightest effort always sent me right back into that fog.
From time to time, I passed through the kitchen, opening cupboards and drawers at random, dragging handfuls of this, or a cup of that into my mouth. Tossing empty containers in the garbage, and when that was full, the sink…and later, on the floor. The man I’d been had kept a well-provisioned pantry. I had no need to worry about starving any time soon. When enough cups and containers had been emptied, I would wander to a bathroom. Some habits persist, it seems—even where I was.
Then, one day, all that changed in an instant.
I happened to be looking out a window toward the street, when some cops pulled up and headed toward the building in a business-like manner that suddenly scattered the fog around my mind, and awakened all the fear it had concealed. I had escaped the police once—with a missing man’s wallet and keys. I could not be found now in his home. Not unless I wanted to rule the world by twenty-five from a jail cell. Somewhere amongst all those misfiring synapses, I must have sensed that I would have to leave this vanished man’s den eventually, because as I rushed to get out and down the back stairs before those guys got up the front ones, I nearly stumbled over several plastic bags beside the condo’s rear door filled with things like food, cash, and extra clothing. I had no recollection of filling them, or leaving them there, though I must have—at some point in the aimless dreamtime I’d been living in. But I had the sense to grab them as I yanked the door open, and ran—again—wondering if there would ever be anything else for me to do.
That was the last time I saw my home, or any other material artifact of my previous existence, for a very, very long time.
I just kept running—without direction—or rather, in whichever direction seemed most directly away from the condo that could never again be ‘safe,’ or ‘home,’ or ‘mine.’ Perhaps it was the physical exertion, or the fear, or the sudden sensory deluge of being out in the light and air and chaos of the living world again, but my mind began to clear for the first time in days.
Eventually, I ran out of steam, parked my stuff behind a convenience store, and slumped down, panting and sweating, against the wall to rest. As my breathing evened out and the rubber receded from my legs, I scarfed down half the food packed into my bags, then tried again to sort things out, but quickly gave that up for good. What kind of ‘plan’ could be devised for this? Somewhere during the abstraction I’d been suspended in, I had misplaced the very notion of ‘planning.’ The concept seemed ludicrous. If anyone at all controlled the universe I lived in now, it surely wasn’t me. That alone seemed clear. In fact, as I took up my bags and began to walk again, I found myself wondering if I had ever been in charge of anything in life at all, strangely certain that I hadn’t; that this new existence—however inexplicable—might actually be less delusional than the former one.
My feet took me doggedly back toward the city; perhaps because that’s where all of this had started, or maybe just because that path led downhill. Not until I found myself downtown, however, as afternoon tilted toward evening, did my brain catch on to what my feet had long since figured out. I had to find the woman who had done this to me—and get her to undo it.
So obvious! How had I failed to think of it earlier? So much time wasted!
It was sunset by the time I found the alley where my life had been turned inside out. I hovered nervously across the street, pulling on one of my two sweaters against the chill of dusk. It was early spring, but the nights were still quite cold. As I stared at the alley’s mouth, memories of that ‘troll’ convinced me to stay out of there ’til morning.
Only then, believe it or not, did I start wondering where I’d spend the night.
And so began my first experience of literal homelessness.
I’m not sure there has ever been a person less prepared for life on the street than I was. Most runaways—and I’ve known my share since then—have been in trouble, or at least hanging out with trouble, for some time before they actually pull up stakes and go. They may not truly understand what’s waiting for them, but at very least, most think themselves sufficiently ‘street-wise’ to handle it.
I knew absolute jack. Correction: less than absolute jack.
My mysteriously pre-packed bags contained a renewed supply of cash from the condo, an ATM card and a credit card, and I would just have gotten a motel room somewhere, had I thought anyone would rent out to some skinny kid at sunset—which shows you just how naïve I was. Mere months later, I would know a dozen places in this city that’ll rent out to a toddler—or a hamster—for a night or just half an hour, no questions asked—once they’ve seen the money. That night, I didn’t even know yet what ‘squat’ meant to people like me.
The most important things—cash, wallet, cell phone, charger, and a bag of potato chips—were stowed in the numerous pockets of my thrift store cargo pants by now. After an exploratory wander, I hid my two bags of remaining stuff under a pile of construction debris behind an empty, half-gutted retail building where I was sure no one would find them. Then I went in search of some all-night venue to hang out in.
Despite my purchase of a second burger and fries (I was suddenly famished all the time now), I was politely kicked out of Jenny’s All Night Diner around 10:30—their definition of ‘all night,’ it seemed, for people of my apparent age. An hour later I was less politely escorted from Food Bushel 24-Hour Supermarket by a burly security guard who seemed to think that anyone out so late at my age must be a shoplifter. I got almost an hour of actual sleep in an orange plastic bucket seat at the bus terminal before being roused by a station agent who asked to see my ticket. I offered to buy one if he’d let me sleep, but he told me to go home or he’d have to call the police. I showed him my money, and he still just shook his head.
So I went out into the now extremely chilly darkness, to be overtaken less than two blocks later by a gaunt, grimy man with thinning, dust-colored hair, who reeked of bourbon and less pleasant things, and, in hindsight, had likely seen me flash that money at the station agent.
If he had a weapon, he didn’t bother using it. He just came from behind, shoved me hard against a wall, and made it clear that I could either get hurt real bad, or empty all my pockets. Even such a skinny, diminished man seemed awfully big to someone of my new size. He took my watch, the cell phone and charger, my cash, of course, and my ATM and credit cards. I was on the verge of whining that I’d starve if he took everything, but some vague instinct already germinating inside my soft, unseasoned gut kept my mouth shut. Unconsciously, at least, I was already realizing that, on the street, whining is just so much blood poured into shark-infested water.
After picking me clean, even he had the gall to ask what the hell I was doing out at such an hour. I told him my parents were dead, the cops were after me, and I had nowhere to go, still hoping, perhaps, for sympathy, or even just some fellow-feeling. He merely shook his head in obvious disgust. “Who’s gonna b’lieve a crock a’shit like that, kid? Get a smarter story fer Chrissake—or better yet, jus’ get back home. Dumb little shit like you ain’t gonna last five minutes out here. You gettin’ that yet?”
With a sneer, he tossed the ATM card at my feet. “’Cause I got a heart,” he said, though it seemed more likely he just didn’t have the time or ambition to beat the PIN out of me. “Kids these days,” he muttered to himself as he walked away. “Dumb as shovels …”
Watching him go, I thought he was the most despicable man I would ever meet. Now it seems entirely possible that he really did think he’d done some clueless, spoiled burbie kid a huge favor—scaring me back to safety minus nothing worse than cash and credit cards doubtless stolen from my bourgeois parents to begin with. Whatever the truth, I must concede that I’ve since met much more presentable people who were far more despicable.
Unable to call the police for help, I threw my hands up and walked back to where I’d hidden my bags, glad that I still had my ATM card, at least, and a second sweater.
I was half right.
Someone had taken my bags from their hiding place too; all the extra clothing—and it was cold now—and my remaining junk food. Night School: Lesson 5—or was it 10 by then? In the city, someone is always watching.